- Executive Summary
Methodology: This annual report is based on the monthly repression of dissent reports published in 2022. Repression of dissent provides some general trends and details of some significant incidents related to the repression of dissent in Sri Lanka, mainly based on the information reported in mainstream and social media. Incidents of repression mentioned in this report include arrests, threats, intimidation, investigations against human rights defenders (HRDs) etc. and potential threats such as new repressive laws, appointments, policy decisions etc., which may have a negative impact on freedom of expression, assembly, association and dissent in the future. In this report, “dissent” is broadly defined to include acts of protest, resistance, defiance, challenge against, question or attempt to record rights violations, social injustice at the hands of state or non-state apparatus, including police, armed forces, religious groups, and politicians among others. “Repression” is defined as any attempt by the above state or non-state actors to suppress the acts of dissent. Any rhetoric decrying human rights has also been considered as repression of dissent because of its potential to erode rights.
Overview: In 2022, Sri Lanka went through its worst economic crisis since independence, caused by depletion of foreign reserves and high international debt, amidst Covid19 pandemic and financial mismanagement. Shortage of essential items, frequent power cuts and high inflation forced people into the streets, who protested demanding the resignation of the President. As the protests heightened, the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country, while one of their associates Ranil Wickramasinghe was appointed as the next president. The new government took a more repressive approach, arresting hundreds of protesters who took part in anti-government protests. Sri Lanka was dropped further below in the corruption perception index, while a number of politicians and high profile politicians were acquitted from a number of corruption and other criminal cases filed against them at courts. As a post war country with high corruption, militarization, and serious issues in justice and accountability, many cases of gross human rights violations still remain in impunity for decades. In October, UNHRC reviewed the situation in Sri Lanka and adopted a new resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka which was rejected by the Sri Lankan government according to its Foreign Minister. A report made by the OHCHR in February expressed deep concern over a number of violations in the country.
Case updates: The People’s Tribunal in the Hague found the Sri Lankan state guilty of the murder of Editor Lasantha Wickramatunge. Journalist Keerthi Rathnayake arrested in August 2021 was released on bail after 6 months of detention under Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Human Rights lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah was granted bail after 20 months of detention under PTA. A Batticaloa based local photojournalist also detained under PTA was granted bail after 470 days of detention. Seven people who had been arrested and detained for around seven months under PTA, for holding a memorial event in Batticaloa in May 2021 were acquitted and released. A key witness in the case of the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda claimed that the previous testimony he had given before the magistrate court was false, and given under the influence of the criminal investigation of Department (CID) officers, and further told that he had not had any previous knowledge of the disappeared journalist Ekneligoda before meeting investigation officers. Sri Lanka Bar Association (BASL) wrote to the Inspector General of Police, expressing the concern on the arrests and detentions being carried out without adherence to due process “in a manner akin to abductions.” A number of campaigns were conducted demanding the release of student activists who were detained under PTA for a long period. MP Premalal Jayasekara and two others who were previously convicted for committing a murder by shooting at members of an opposition political party in 2015 were acquitted during their appeal. Former MP and Chairperson of the housing development authority Duminda Silva, was arrested again and handed over to prison officials, based on the interim order issued by the Supreme Court suspending the presidential pardon given to him June 2021 in relation to the murder of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. Former Sabaragamuwa Provincial Councillor Hasitha Samantha was acquitted and released from the case of the murder of former Sabaragamuwa Councillor Ranjith Nandasena in 1999. Former MP Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced to two years of suspended rigorous imprisonment for contempt of court in one case, and also granted presidential pardon for the previous case he was sentenced for contempt of court for calling the judges corrupt. The supreme court issued travel bans against former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and others hearing a fundamental rights petition on their alleged responsibility for the economic crisis.
Repression of media and freedom of expression: A number of journalists were obstructed and not allowed to cover certain events, including a journalist based in Batticaloa who was issued a court order banning him from reporting a protest. Newspaper Editor Chaminda Senaratna received death threats for reporting on alleged illegal assets held by senior Police officers. A provincial correspondent was threatened by a politician demanding not to release footage of an illegal business. Tamil journalist Lakshaman Devapatheeran working for IBC Tamil website was assaulted by political supporters led by a State Minister. On 31st of March, at least 6 journalists covering the protest in front of the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s private residence were arrested, while around 9 journalists and hundreds of protesters were allegedly assaulted by the Police and military. On the following day, a director of the President’s Media Division threatened journalists who had been reporting on the damages that occurred during the protest. The Inspector General of Police (IGP) ordered an inquiry against a private television channel for distributing information about the same protest. At least five journalists were assaulted while covering the military raid on the GoGotaGama protest site in July. Some were detained and tortured, their phones were confiscated and videos recorded were forcefully deleted by the military. At least eight journalists were assaulted while covering the tense situation at the Prime Minister Wickramasinghe’s private residence in July. A social media activist was summoned and questioned over publishing content allegedly contemptuous of the government. Another was questioned for five hours over a facebook comment. several youtubers were summoned and questioned over the contents of their youtube channels. The court ordered a youtube channel to remove some content based on a complaint filed by an educational institute. A female journalist working in a state owned television company, and a teacher in Badulla district were sacked from employment for criticising the government in social media. A number of journalists, social media content creators and activists were summoned and questioned by the Police for supporting anti-government protests. Social Media was temporarily restricted on the instruction of the Director General of Telecommunication Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Defence. Three admins of a social media group including a female TV presenter were arrested in relation to the violence that occurred during protests. Government ordered the government employees to avoid sharing their opinions in social media. Several government officials were arrested and subjected to disciplinary actions for criticising the government including a medical doctor who was indicted for informing the media on alarming rates of child malnutrition in a village. Three ruling party Parliamentarians allegedly assaulted, and threatened two parliamentary correspondents and also took away their mobile phones. A journalist was assaulted while covering a clash between the Police and residents in Akkaraipattu in Ampara district. Several journalists were assaulted while covering tense situations at fuel queues in a few incidents. In November, army soldiers visited the Mullaitivu Press Club and demanded to provide information on key people who are involved with their media centre.
Repression of Freedom of Assembly: Members of a leftist political party were subjected to surveillance, intimidation and harassment. Police also attempted to raid an office of another leftist political party in Colombo. Parliamentarian Rasamanickam was issued a court order preventing him from participating in protests. A court order was issued against a trade union and its president when a trade union action had been planned. Trade unionists were subjected to surveillance, and they were summoned and questioned over their involvement in protests.Police raided an NGO located in Kilinochchi in the Northern Province, while they were planning a protest. Police obstructed, and dispersed protests organised by a workers union, the families of the disappeared, women’s rights activists, residents who protested against land expropriation by the military, and a number of memorial events and protests held in the North and east and Colombo. A number of court orders were also issued banning memorial events, and protests. Teargas and water were fired at a number of anti-government protests, including those organised by students. A protester was shot dead and 14 others were injured when the Police fired live bullets at protesters during an anti-government protest held in Rambukkana in central Sri Lanka. A protester who allegedly damaged a police trishaw, during a protest demanding fuel was sentenced to 3 ½ years of rigorous imprisonment. 21 protesters were arrested for blocking the entrances of two government buildings when a meeting with the IMF was scheduled there. Almost two weeks after the protesters took over several key government buildings demanding the resignation of the President, on 22nd July, military troops raided occupying buildings and removed the protesters forcefully injuring at least 50 persons and arresting at least 9 persons, despite them already agreeing to hand over the premises peacefully. A student union activist was abducted and then left on a roadside after interrogating him on the well known student leaders. Several protest leaders were also arrested in a manner similar to abduction, however the Police later claimed that they were arrested. Travel bans were issued against at least 27 protesters involved with the Galle Face protest site. In May, the anti-government protest site in Colombo was attacked and protesters were assaulted. In July, an anti-government protest site in Embilipitiya was attacked and destroyed by thugs. In August and September hundreds of protesters who entered the Presidential secretariat and house in July were arrested. In August, IUSF convener Wasantha Mudalige, and Convener of the Inter-University Bhikku Federation, Ven. Galewela Siridhamma Thero and 16 others were arrested. Mudalige and Siridhamma Thero were detained for months under the PTA. A protest organised demanding the release of these activists was dispersed using tear gas and water attacks, and 27 other protesters were arrested in the same month. A Tamil French citizen who was involved in organising a demonstration in Paris in support of anti-government protests was arrested while visiting Sri Lanka. Passport of a British social media influencer who supported Sri Lankan protests was arrested, and later her visa was terminated and asked to leave the country. In September, 84 protesters were arrested, 7 were hospitalised due to police assaults after President Wickramasinghe declared high security zones covering many areas of Colombo city.
Legal and policy changes: Amidst anti-government protests in Sri Lanka, the state of emergency was declared three times, from April to July 2022, along with multiple curfew orders banning the public from gathering at public places including public roads. Monthly Gazettes calling on the armed forces to maintain public order were issued throughout the year, except in July and September, indicating continued militarization. In January 2022, Local government elections were postponed for another year. Sri Lanka de-listed six international Tamil diaspora organisations from the proscript list of individuals allegedly involved in terrorism and terrorism financing, while the poet Ahnaf Jazeem was freshly included in the list. Parliament secretariat, refusing to release the information of asset declarations of parliamentary members, appealed to the Court of Appeal against an order of the Right to Information Commission. The Personal Data Protection bill was passed in the parliament. It restricts RTI and restricts journalists’ access to information. In September, the Sri Lanka Police refused to provide information on the number of persons arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act during a hearing at the RTI Commission. In January 2022, the government gazetted some amendments to the draconian law Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). However the changes were minimalistic, and inadequate and do not address the key issues lying with the PTA, according to the human rights groups. In August 2022, Sri Lanka’s minister of justice announced the introduction of a new ‘national security act’ with more “relaxed” provisions to replace the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). On 23rd of September, a Gazette notification was issued declaring new High Security Zones in Colombo including a number of key government buildings under the Official Secret Act. This was later revoked as many including the Human Rights commission of Sri Lanka pointed out the illegality of the action. In September, a controversial draft Bill titled “Bureau of Rehabilitation Act” was gazetted. Human rights activists and others held that the bill was an attempt to target those who participated in the recent protests, to send them through a forcible process of rehabilitation, without following the judiciary procedures. On multiple occasions, the President declared certain services as essential services in an attempt to prevent trade union actions.
Repression of Civil Society: Several problematic statements were issued by the government ministers and members of parliament, condemning trade union actions and proposing to introduce new laws to ban labour strikes. President Ranil Wickramasinghe, while addressing the parliament, mocked human rights defenders, and argued that the Human Rights Commission cannot obstruct the duties of the police and security forces. An activist known for his activism on demanding justice for victims of the Easter Sunday Bomb attack was arrested. Several activists were summoned to the Criminal Investigation Department and questioned for hours and some others were subjected to surveillance. Police officers from TID have visited several non governmental organisations and requested them to provide details of the staff and funders. The President of Batticaloa District Civil Society Forum was summoned by the Police both in September and October. Another activist filed a Fundamental Rights case claiming that the Police is attempting to falsely implicate him with the violence that occurred on 9th July, when protesters took over the Presidential secretariat and other buildings.
Other incidents: Land commissioner stated that a politician is attempting to sack him from his position. It was also reported that the government has been considering taking actions against the Chairpersons of Litro Gas company and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) for criticising the government at media interviews. In April, the army commander requested the IGP to take actions against police officers who stopped masked military men on motor bikes with no vehicle registration numbers who were intimidating the protesters. The Health Minister threatened to take action against the health trade unionist who revealed the higher doses of aflatoxin detected in the government distributed nutrition supplement. Two parliamentarians belonging to ethnic minorities reported that they were followed by intelligence officers. In February, the Youth Wing Assistant Secretary of a Tamil political party was subjected to an attempted abduction. In September, a female human rights activist in Batticaloa and a female member of the political party of TNA were summoned and questioned by the Terrorism Investigation division of the Police.